9 I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10 I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet 11 saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.”
12 Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. 14 The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.
17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. 19 Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this. 20 As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches. – Revelation 1:9-20 ESV
After having completed the salutation portion of his letter, John reveals why he even bothered to write the letter in the first place. He was commanded to do so, and that command came from Jesus Christ himself. John has already made it known that his letter was addressed to the seven churches that are in the province of Asia, but we will soon see that his eventual audience would be far greater in size and scope. It is in these verses that John reveals the names of the cities in which the seven churches reside: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. But why these churches? Ephesus is somewhat familiar to us, because of its distinction as one of the churches to whom the apostle Paul wrote. But the rest of the churches mentioned by John were relatively small and unknown congregations located in less significant cities than those of Rome, Jerusalem, and Antioch, where much larger congregations existed at the time of the writing of this letter. John provides us with no reason for his choice of these particular cities, but we have to believe that their selection had been up to God. There was a divine purpose behind their choice and as we study chapters two and three of this letter, we will see that these seven churches provide a symbolic representation of the global church of all ages. All located within close proximity of one another in Asia Minor, these seven churches were not separated by geographical distance or sociological barriers. And yet, we will see that each of them is addressed by God for their various virtues and shortcomings. They will receive commendations and condemnations from God based on the degree of their faithfulness. As stated earlier, the number seven stands for perfection or completeness, so this list of churches is intended to represent all churches of all times. They provide us with a comprehensive overview of the church’s health over the ages, from faithful and alive to lukewarm and even dead. The descriptions of the spiritual state of these churches will even mirror the conditions of churches within a given age. As we will see, there are attributes of each and every one of these churches that can be found in their modern counterparts today.
John reveals that he wrote this letter while on the island of Patmos, a small, inhospitable island in the Aegean Sea southwest of Ephesus. The early church fathers wrote confidently that John was exiled to Patmos by the Roman emperor, Domitian. This was as a result of his preaching of the gospel, which is why John describes himself as their “brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus” (Revelation 1:9 ESV). And John makes it clear that his presence on the island was “on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (Revelation 1:9 ESV).
At some point during his exile, John received a message from God. It came in the form of a vision. John reports that he “was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day” (Revelation 1:10 ESV). This most likely means that John was somehow empowered by the Spirit of God, enabled to escape the physical confines of Patmos, and provided with an out-of-body tour of heaven and an up-close-and-personal view of future events on earth. John indicates that this happened on the Lord’s day. While it would be easy to assume that he is referring to Sunday, the day on which the early church traditionally met for worship, this is most likely a reference to the day of the Lord. The word “Lord’s” is used as an adjective and is meant to indicate a future day, the day of the Lord. John was transported by the Spirit to a day yet to come, a day designated by God as unlike any other day. In fact, as we will see, John will be given a glimpse into a day or time period that spans vast periods of time, but it all lies in the future. But before John is allowed to see what will be, he is introduced to “one like a son of man” (Revelation 1:13 ESV). From the description John gives of this individual, it can be deduced that he was seeing Jesus, the Son of God. He is “clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest” (Revelation 1:13 ESV). These are the garments of a priest and judge. They represent Christ’s deity. The designation “son of man” is found repeatedly in the gospels and is commonly used to emphasize Jesus’ humanity and status as the Messiah. John describes Jesus as having bright white hair, eyes like flames of fire, feet like burnished bronze and a voice like thunder. He is pure, righteous, holy and stands ready to judge the world for its many transgressions. This is a distinctively different image than that of helpless baby in a manger or a crucified Jesus hanging lifeless on a cross. And this image of Jesus sets the stage for what is to come in the rest of John’s letter. The shock of seeing his friend, Lord and Savior in such a manner left John in a state of awe and reverence. He fell down at Jesus feet “as though dead.” But Jesus raised John to his feet and said to him:
“Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.” – Revelation 1:17-19 ESV
Jesus comforts John by reminding him that He is the first and the last. In other words, He is eternal. He is alive. He died, but was raised back to life by God the Father and his resurrection gave him victory over death and Hades, which is a reference to life after death. Jesus wants John to know that he has nothing to fear. While John had not seen Jesus since the day He ascended back into heaven, he was now given an opportunity to view His Savior in a whole new light, as the sovereign, all-powerful King of kings and Lord of lords.
When John first laid his eyes on Jesus, he saw Him standing amidst seven golden lampstands and holding seven stars in His right hand. These items meant nothing to John until Jesus explained them.
“As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.” – Revelation 1:20 ESV
And we will discover the significance of the lampstands and stars in the following two chapters.
Verse 19 contains a critical element that will prove essential in understanding the rest of the book of Revelation. Jesus told John, “Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.” Notice that He describes three different aspects to the content of what John is to write.
- The things you have seen
- The things that are
- The things that are to take place after this
This three-fold outline sets up a key for unlocking the entire book of Revelation. The things that John had seen refers to all that is contained in chapter one. He was to describe all that he saw as a result of his vision. Secondly, he was to write about the things that are. This is believed to be a reference to the content found in chapters two and three, where John addresses the seven churches, which were alive and well in his day. These were existing churches containing real live believers, and what John would write would be applicable to their current state of affairs. Finally, John was to write about all that was to take place “after this.” In other words, he was to put pen to paper and describe all the things that would happen after “the things that are.” The seven churches, while real churches existing in real time, also represent the church age. The fact that there are seven of them, informs us that they are intended to be representative in nature, providing a complete profile and description of the church, ever since its inception at Pentecost until the day Jesus returns to remove the church from the earth. The time period in which John wrote s is commonly referred to as the church age and ends with the rapture of the church. The “things” John was to write entail all that will happen after the removal of the church. And that will constitute the greatest portion of John’s letter, from chapter 4 all the way to chapter 22.
As we make our way through the rest of Revelation, we will be confronted with fantastic imagery and difficult-to-understand passages that seem incomprehensible. But we must always remember that this book was written to be read and understood. In fact, John indicates that reading it comes with a blessing. But that does not mean it will reveal its secrets easily. It will take work and a determination to understand what God is trying to tell us. In the following two chapters, we will repeatedly see the words, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” We are about to encounter truth and it will require that we listen closely and carefully to what God has to say. It will also require that we look at the rest of the Bible in order to seek out other passages that will help enlighten us as to what God intends for us to know. There will remain unsolved mysteries when we’re done. Much of what we read will only be understood when the events themselves take place. But we can rest in the fact that our God has a plan and He is working that plan to perfection. The future is not arbitrary and the outcome of God’s redemptive plan is not up for grabs. The sovereign God of the universe has it all planned out down to the last detail, and His Son will play a significant role in bringing it all about. Of that, we can be sure.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.